A post-war Grand Tour: Queensland architect Jim Leven at the United Nations

In this guest blog post, architect and historian Don Watson discusses a blueprint of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City by Queensland architect Jim Leven held in the Fryer Library's collections.

From the late seventeenth century, well-off young men from northern Europe visited Italy as an educational rite of passage. This cultural pilgrimage came to be called the Grand Tour. Young Queensland architects continued this tradition but by the mid-twentieth century, the objects of their interest were more widely located.

On 22 April 1948, the SS Paducah Victory departed from Brisbane, bound for Sydney en route to Boston, carrying wool and general cargo. In normal circumstances the Paducah Victory did not carry passengers but on this voyage there were two: James Leven and Graham Hamilton, young Queensland architects and veterans of the recent war. Arriving in Boston on in July 1948, they gave their intended destination in the United States as Black Mountain College, North Carolina, an avant-garde design school.

Two architects

In 1948, James Findlay Leven (1922–2003) was relatively unknown, unlike his father, Andrew Baxter Leven (1885–1966), a Scottish-trained architect, who spent most of his career working for the Queensland Department of Public Works. From 1933 until he retired in 1951, Leven senior served as Chief Architect and Chief Quantity Surveyor, but when Jim was born he was Foreman of Works at Rockhampton. Alan Graham Hamilton (1920–c2008), did not come from an architectural family but his father was a senior bureaucrat with the Queensland Government. When Graham Hamilton was born, William Graham Hamilton was a Brisbane solicitor but was later Solicitor-General.

Both young architects attended the Brisbane Grammar School. In 1939, they enrolled in the part-time Diploma of Architecture course at Brisbane's Central Technical College while working as cadets in the Public Works Department. Both enlisted for service in World War II: Leven in December 1941 and Hamilton in September 1942. With post-war reconstruction a priority, they were discharged, like many of their architectural colleagues, before the war ended: Hamilton in June 1944 and Leven in February 1945. They rejoined the Works Department and promptly enrolled in the new Diploma of Architecture course at the University of Queensland under Professor Robert Percy Cummings. Exempted from the first three years of the course, they completed the final three years in 1947, ready to further their experience abroad.

An American education

Black Mountain College was a progressive college, founded in 1933 by John A Rice, 'a brilliant and mercurial scholar' who was influenced by the ideas of the American philosopher John Dewey. Concurrently with Adolf Hitler's rise to power, comparable initiatives in Germany were being obstructed and their proponents persecuted. When the Bauhaus, a pioneering modern design school, was shut down, many of its staff left for the United States, where Josef Albers was employed as the first art teacher at Black Mountain College. In 1939 Albers' colleagues from the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, were commissioned to design buildings at a new campus for the College at Lake Eden. In January 1940 their design was exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art where Edgar J Kaufmann junior was active.

As son of a wealthy department store owner, Edgar J Kaufmann junior received an Arts and Crafts education in Europe before working as an apprentice for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin East in 1933-34. This association led to Kaufman's father commissioning Wright for the family's holiday house, Fallingwater. During World War II, Edgar junior served in the south-west Pacific where he joined in Brisbane's cultural life. Befriended by Robert Cummings, he participated at the Cummings' regular open-house events for visiting servicemen and women and also Cummings' students, who in 1945 included Jim Leven and Graham Hamilton. Their arrival at Black Mountain for the Fall Term of 1948 coincided with a course on design presented by Edgar Kaufmann junior.

Australia at the UN

Leven and Hamilton stayed only one term before moving to New York where both worked on documentation of the new United Nations Headquarters whose design had resulted from an international collaboration between architects representing eleven countries. They included an Australian, Melbourne-trained architect GA (Gyle) Soillieux (1900-1959). Most influential among the collaborators were Le Corbusier (France) and Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), with Niemeyer generally credited with the approved design. To what extent Soillieux or Kaufmann was responsible for the engagement of Leven and Hamilton is not known.

In 2015 the Leven family donated a large blueprint of Leven's sectional drawing through the Meeting Halls to the Fryer Library. There were three halls, including at the southern end of the building, the Security Council. Now called the Conference Building, and overlooking the East river, it is of three main components of the United Nations complex: the others are the General Assembly Building and the Secretariat.

Moving to London, Leven and Hamilton worked for at least part of the time for the Queensland Works Department overseeing the prefabrication in various European countries of vast numbers of houses intended to overcome a critical housing shortage in Queensland. After returning to Australia, they eventually returned to the Works Department, Hamilton after working briefly in Melbourne and Leven after a period in private practice. Unfortunately, the Department was dominated by a day-labour Construction Branch, with few opportunities for design innovation. They came to occupy senior positions in the Schools Branch under FG Costello, with Leven in charge of secondary schools, and Hamilton primary. With their creativity unduly constrained, none of this trio realised their full potential.

About Don Watson

Don Watson is a retired architect and co-author (with his wife, historian Judith McKay) of A Directory of Queensland Architects to 1940, published by the Fryer Library in 1984 when he was a lecturer at the University of Queensland. In 1994, they published Queensland Architects of the Nineteenth Century: a biographical dictionary. 

Last updated:
9 February 2021